For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this excerpt from Backstory’s interview with The Punisher showrunner Steve Lightfoot from Backstory Issue 36 – out now exclusively for subscribers.
The first few episodes of season two of The Punisher look nothing like the show fans remember, and that’s exactly how Steve Lightfoot wants it. As the showrunner, Lightfoot received deserved praise for the Netflix/Marvel series’ first season, which saw titular hero Frank Castle discover the truth of what led to the murder of his wife and children. When planning a second go-round, Lightfoot knew mining the same territory was not the way to go. “Season one was about a very specific story of dealing with his family and the grief behind that,” Lightfoot says. “But I knew that couldn’t be the show every year. Every season couldn’t be Frank still mourning his wife and kids or him discovering there was someone else who had something to do with it. We had to progress beyond that.”
As with all Netflix/Marvel collaborations, season one took place entirely in New York. So it’s jarring that this season opens with Frank (wonderfully played by Jon Bernthal) at a roadside bar in rural Michigan. Lightfoot wanted to do a series of episodes outside New York to highlight the fact the way he sees his lead. “Frank is a classic western character in a lot of ways,” he says of the genre. “He’s a hero that puts society back on its feet but in doing so leaves no place for himself. That’s very classic western mythology for me. So in my mind we couldn’t just come back to New York. He would have gotten out of town. And I loved the idea of this guy who’s a marine who’s spent a lot of his life overseas fighting for his country. I thought if I was him, I would like to go check out the country I’ve fought so much for. Then once he’s on the road, he’s not going to stay anywhere very long. The idea that he was wandering made a lot of sense.”
Lightfoot took the western analogy even further with the structure of the first three episodes of the season. The premiere takes place almost entirely in that bar, much like a saloon. And the third one is a bottle episode where Frank and other characters are holed up in a police station fending off an ambush. “That was very much our take on Rio Bravo,” he says of the Howard Hawkes 1959 film with a similar plot. “Those episodes allowed us to get back under Frank’s skin before we took him back to New York and back to all the things he left behind that are still waiting for him.” But Frank doesn’t go return alone. Since the first season dealt with the fallout of him losing his family, season two needed a new emotional journey. As he began to plan the season, Lightfoot knew it needed to end with Frank fully embracing his role as the Punisher, a character that kills people who deserve it with no provocation. The challenge of writing a character like that is obvious: How can an audience root for someone who kills with no thought or remorse? Simple: Give them a good enough reason. “I started thinking about who do I want him fighting for this season.” Soon he realized the answer, oddly enough, is teenager Amy Bendix (Giorgia Whigham). A very minor character in the Punisher comics, here she gets a whole new take with a newly invented arc. “I loved the idea of putting him with a young girl. Frank is very chivalrous, and he’s always concerned about the well-being of women and children. He has those old ideas of chivalry embedded in him. So playing with a surrogate father-daughter relationship was really interesting to me. It also lets us see a different side of Frank. How does he deal with a person he can’t just punch in the face?” Frank and Amy’s connection forms the emotional spine of the season, so while he may be brutally killing people, the audience knows he is doing it to protect her. That is crucial for Lightfoot to make the character work. “Frank isn’t going to change too much as a character, because if he does, you’re not going to have a show anymore. What we learned on season one is the ways you give the audience things to root for and feel empathy for him are all about the people you put around him: Who is he fighting for?”
To begin each season, Lightfoot creates a document full of what he thinks will be the major arcs for the show’s main and supporting characters: Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), the man responsible for Frank’s family’s death who was left for dead at the end of season one; Homeland Security agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah), who was also betrayed by Russo and is obsessed with him getting justice; and Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore), Frank’s marine friend who is constantly dragged into his friend’s messes. “I like to come in [at the start of the season] with an idea about what I’d like to achieve, because I’ve been in rooms where you turn up on day one and the showrunner says, ‘Okay, what’s the season?’” Lightfoot notes. “If I did that personally, I’ll get six great versions from my writers, and three months later I’d still be deciding what I like best. So I give the writers a document before we start and basically say, ‘This is the worst the show can be so it’s our job to make it better at every turn.’ Having a roadmap or at least a destination in mind is really helpful for me, and then everyone is working toward that same goal.”
The writers had an interesting dilemma to tackle in the writing of the season involving Billy. While he is Frank’s main enemy, he also fills that role for Madani. The two were in a romantic relationship before Billy revealed his true colors, and she spends much of this season obsessing over how to get revenge on him. That left the scribes pondering how to give neat endings to both Frank and Billy’s arc as well as the one between Billy and Madani. “You try to approach everything from character,” Lightfoot says. “The more we broke the story of her obsessive relationship with him, the more it felt like a cheat to take away her confrontation with Billy because it’s all she wanted. It felt much more powerful and poignant than to have Frank and Billy have another shootout.” Because the writers were already planning on Frank and Billy having several face-to-face confrontations in multiple episodes, they decided to give Billy’s last big fight to Madani, and it’s she who mortally wounds him in an epic, brutal fight. “It felt like she’d earned that. She needed it. It was in character for it to happen that way.”
Madani fires the shots that ultimately would take Billy’s life, and yet the season’s finale features an anticlimactic final moment between Frank and Billy. As Billy lies bleeding out, Frank approaches him. Billy starts to give a big speech that sounds like it may be building to an apology, but before he can get it out, Frank coldly fires two more shots into his chest and walks away. While it ended Billy’s two-season arc, Lightfoot entered the writers’ room thinking he would keep him around a little while longer. Then as he and the writers broke the individual episodes, he realized that Billy had to go. Again, for him it was all about character. “The more we played with Frank having to deal with the repercussions of him leaving Billy alive in season one and all the trouble that ended up causing, I couldn’t find any version that made sense for Frank to keep him alive this time around,” he says. “We went through that extensively in the room, and we did have an idea how keeping him alive might happen, but I didn’t understand how we could actually do it. It just didn’t feel true to Frank.”
The season’s best—and most important—scene is a quiet moment between Frank and Amy in an abandoned trailer in which they’re hiding. After a conversation between the two of them and Curtis gets heated, Curtis tells Frank he’s not so different from Billy. This sends Frank storming out, ending up visiting his wife’s grave. The next morning, he sits down with Amy and heartbreakingly tells her that his wife always knew what Frank was—a violent man who could never truly give up those ways. Lightfoot and the writers made the unique choice of having this monumental moment open the season’s ninth episode, where a lot of showrunners might have had such a scene such close an episode. “It just felt right,” Lightfoot says of the decision. “In a way, episode nine is the beginning of the last act of the season. It’s where he accepts who he is and throws his shackles off. That scene is acceptance of what he has to be, and I liked it as the start of something rather than the end of something. It was about setting the stakes for what was going to come rather than commenting on it after the fact.” The scene also represents Frank’s final transformation into the Punisher comic-book fans know—a man who will kill anyone he sees as having done wrong, no matter the personal connection to him or those around him. “Season two was always going to be a journey about him realizing he can’t have a normal life. It’s here he realizes his own nature and what he was meant to be. This is what he wants to do and it’s the end of any chance he has of being a functioning member of society.”
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